• Detachment
    Uncategorized

    Modern “Detachment” and Christian Freedom

    We all struggle with attachments. Such attachments can transform perfectly harmless or even commendable relationships and activities into spiritual hazards. That is why Christians are called to be detached. Without the freedom that detachment brings, we will be unable to follow Christ in a sacrificial way. 

    In a way, the modern world is very detached. The average American moves frequently, leaving behind family, friends, and neighborhood to start fresh in a new location. Friendships tend to last only during a particular phase of life; college friends are likely to drift apart as life goes on. We’ve become much less likely to make long term commitments of any sort. 

    Such rootlessness undermines the possibility of authentic community. The absence of community, in turn, makes a fully Christian life impossible. In this way, the rootlessness of the modern world erodes Christian practice. This leads to a seeming contradiction. The rootedness of community is a direct challenge to the rootless detachment of the modern world—and yet detachment is essential to the Christian life. Should Christians value the ties to particular people and places that are formed in community? If so, how are such ties compatible with Christian detachment?

    The Identities Shaped by Love

    Thinking about the nature of love and identity can help us to answer these questions. Our true identities are shaped by what we love. Casual acquaintances might know my name, and my hair color, and where I live; but they don’t really know “who” I am. To know “who” I am, they would need to know about my loves: my attachment to particular persons and places, my religious and social commitments, and even my hobbies and interests. All of these relationships represent different kinds of love. 

    Love is an inherently risky thing that is almost always accompanied by suffering. We suffer when those we love are harmed or threatened, because we’ve given our hearts to them. We are also willing to undergo suffering for the sake of love. “Compassion” literally means “suffering with”. Being near a suffering person is uncomfortable, since their suffering tends to “rub off” on us. Those who lack love tend to move away when another is suffering, while those who love draw nearer in solidarity. 

    Our relationship with Christ is the ultimate source of our identity as Christians. Christ isn’t content to take second place in our lives; rather, he demands our whole heart and soul. We can’t wall this relationship off into a tidy category labeled “religion”, side by side with other categories labeled “work”, “politics”, “family”, and “sports”. 

    Given the all-embracing nature of the Christian identity, it might seem that we shouldn’t have any other loves or identities in our lives. It might seem that we shouldn’t give our hearts to anyone else, or at least that such gifts of love should be seen as merely an indirect way of loving Christ. For example, parents might participate in some game or other activity merely to show love for their children. They might privately think the game is boring and interminable, but go through the motions to please the children. Similarly, we might see human relationships as mere ways to please Jesus. He has told us that whatever is done for others will be taken as done for him. Obviously, we need to act in a generous and charitable manner toward all. But should we let our hearts become entangled in the messiness of mundane reality? 

    While some Christian thinkers have indeed disparaged natural human relationships, such disdain is not part of the authentic Christian tradition. Instead, we are called to truly love others. In doing so, we are imitating God himself. He loves creatures so fully and so intensely that they are maintained in being by his loving glance. There is no need for him to create; but he freely gives his love. In Jesus Christ, God even experienced the suffering that love so often entails. Out of compassion, he suffered in solidarity with his creatures.

    Of course, we can love creatures inordinately; such inordinate love becomes an obstacle to the love of God. Our loves need to be properly ordered. But the heart has an infinite capacity for love. Just because we love created beings does not mean that we have less love “left over” for God. 

    Christian detachment does not oppose an excess of love; rather, it opposes a lack of love. The miser, for instance, is attached to his money; he hoards it carefully and refuses to give it away. The spendthrift, by contrast, is detached from his money; he scatters it about in a prodigal manner. We are supposed to be prodigal with our love. We should throw it about recklessly, just as God did when he created the universe. 

    Of course, such reckless love entails suffering—which is why we are tempted to avoid it! Giving our hearts to another is dangerous! Instead, we tend to give our hearts to others with a string attached. We try to drag hosts of other creatures about on such strings in a possessive manner, to inflate our egos and make ourselves seem bigger. By doing so, we avoid the risks and sacrifices that come with true self-giving. Such consumptive and possessive attitudes, however, have nothing to do with true love. It is this counterfeit love from which we are called to be detached. Detachment breaks the string and allows us to give love freely, without counting the cost or demanding a return. 

    Voluntary Poverty, Love, and the Christian Community

    In fact, without detachment we are unable to love. Attachments are not solely an obstacle to loving God; they prevent us from freely loving anything. St. Francis of Assisi is the greatest Christian example of voluntary poverty. He gave away everything he had, so that he could freely follow Christ. For that very reason, he was able to love everything around him with a boundless exuberance. He was able to rejoice in things simply being themselves, without plotting ways to achieve dominance and mastery over them. 

    This highlights the difference between modern rootlessness and Christian detachment. Modern detachment is actually an attachment to the power and freedom of the self. The modern world tells us to carefully remain detached from anything that would hamper our individual freedom of choice. The modern world opposes commitments and roots in favor of self-seeking and so-called “self-realization”. For this reason, our society promotes “freedom” from connections to family and community, and even from religious and marital ties, to protect the free choice of the individual from any exterior constraints. Christian detachment, by contrast, is all about giving oneself to others. We’re called to be detached from our possessions so that we can give them to the poor. We’re called to be detached from our own will for the good of others. Both in religious life and in Christian matrimony, detachment is paradoxically expressed by binding oneself. 

    We can see how different these two attitudes really are by looking at the differing results. As we’ve already noted, Christian detachment leads to monasticism, life-long marriage, and care for the poor. It promotes care for creation because it leads individuals to see the natural world as something inherently worthy of respect, rather than as something merely intended to serve individual desires. It leads to thriving local communities because Christian detachment promotes unselfish love and cooperation. At the same time, it also leads individuals to leave their own communities and families to bring the good news of the Gospel to the poor. 

    By contrast, the modern kind of “detachment” leads to a breakdown both of the family and of monastic life. It creates a mass of isolated and disconnected individuals, each pursuing individual goals and personal satisfaction. Family breakdown leads to the warehousing of the elderly in “old folk’s homes”. A lack of care and love for the gifts God has given ends up covering the landscape with landfills. Local communities wither away and can no longer support individuals through times of crisis and need. 

    Love in the Christian Community

    Christ didn’t come to teach ethical principles, but rather to found a community: the Church. In the Gospels, he uses the analogies of a vine with branches and a head with members to portray this community. We’re supposed to be as tightly joined to Christ and to one another as the members of a living organism are bound to one another. Obviously, we wouldn’t want the members of our bodies to be “detached”! Rather, we want the members of our bodies to work together for the good of the whole. The New Testament also uses the analogy of a building to describe our unity with one another. If the elements of a building are detached from one another, the structure falls into ruin. In the concrete reality of a local Christian community, we can practice detachment from our own egos so that, like living stones, we can become attached to one another in the spiritual temple of God. (cf 1 Peter 2:5)

    Moving van picture by amy gizienski, CC BY 2.0

  • Last Judgement

    Friendship with the Poor: Christ in the City

    In this episode Malcolm interviews Matthew Flaherty, a Christ in the City missionary. They discuss the human dignity of the poor, the spiritual lessons of living in community, and the work Christ in the City does in Denver.

    Christ in the City

    Christ in the City is a small missionary organization of young adults who serve the unhoused in Denver. The missionaries live in community. Every day, they walk the streets and befriend those they meet. Their mission is to show the love of Christ to the poor and marginalized, particularly the unhoused.

    Matthew Flaherty grew up in Los Angeles, California. While attending college in Humboldt county, he heard about Christ in the City and their mission. He traveled to Denver and volunteered with them for two weeks. He was deeply impressed by the intentional life of prayer and fellowship in the community, and by the way their work grew out of their life of prayer. In particular, he was struck by the way that the missionaries developed friendships with the poor.

    Friendship, rather than just Aid

    There are many great aid organizations. In major American cities, it is easy to find free meals. That’s a good thing. It isn’t sufficient, however. Too many of the aid organizations are bureaucratized and professional. They can’t provide the friendship and relationships the marginalized need. In fact, at times they can further erode the dignity of the poor.

    The poor and particularly the unhoused suffer material hardships, but the loss of human dignity is even worse. Many of them never hear their own names spoken. They are socially marginalized, modern day lepers. The world ignores them. People walk by on the street, purposefully avoiding eye contact. We subconsciously block them out, because it is uncomfortable to see reality.

    Many of the unhoused become “resource resistant”. They know all about the resources available. But they lack the motivation and assistance necessary to navigate what is on offer. For instance, many of them lack IDs. Without identification, many services become unavailable. Getting a new ID card is a difficult and lengthy process, particularly for the unhoused. They have no secure places to store documents and paperwork. One theft can undo weeks of work, and give a fatal blow to their motivation to get off the street.

    That’s where Christ in the City comes in. Instead of an emphasis on aid, the Christ in the City missionaries have an emphasis on friendship. They treat those on the streets with dignity and respect. Through this friendship, they can learn about the unique struggles and needs of each individual person. The missionaries can then provide assistance, just as they would for any other friend in their lives.

    Our Brothers and Sisters in Christ

    We’re called to see every other human being as a brother or sister in Christ. How would we react if a brother or sister was sleeping on the street? We might not all be called to work with Christ in the City, but we are each called to give the poor the respect and recognition that they deserve as fellow human beings. To often, we shunt our charitable duties over to organizations. We throw money at problems, because we can’t think of anything else to do. Giving money is good, but not enough; we have to show others the personal love of Christ.

    Aid through Friendship

    The Catholic teachings of solidarity and subsidiarity would seem to suggest that we can only truly help those we know. If we don’t know them, we don’t know what they need! This is a widespread problem in our society. St. James condemned those who say “go in peace, be warm and fed” without taking concrete steps to make this sentiment a reality. But if we don’t know others, we won’t know if they need help! It is perfectly possible that we’re attending Sunday Mass with a family who has just got their power shut off, but we don’t know them. This lack of knowledge makes us unwittingly fall under the condemnation of St. James. The Christ in the City missionaries focus on friendship to get to know the poor; but part of friendship is assistance. Aid and friendship are not opposed, but complementary.

    Life in Community

    At any one time, there are about 30 to 35 missionaries. They live in a building near downtown Denver. The typical day starts with morning prayer and a holy hour. Then the missionaries split up into pairs for their time on the streets. In the afternoon, the missionaries work on tasks to maintain the institution and carry out any plans they’ve made with their friends on the streets. Life is like a religious order, though somewhat less structured.

    Should We Give to Those Who Ask?

    Many people say that we should not give to the people who are begging on the street. They argue that this will merely fuel people’s addictions and negative lifestyles. There are several problems with this advice. What are we going to do with the money? Is our use of money necessarily optimal? Do we even rightfully own surplus wealth? Further, isn’t such a mindset rather dehumanizing toward the poor? Would we ask similar questions before giving presents to friends and relatives? Isn’t this the same mindset held by the bureaucratic organizations that insist on snooping through the lives of the poor before dispensing aid?

    Most importantly, the message of the Gospel and of the Saints is clear; we should give to those who ask of us. If we’re deeply concerned that our donations will be misused, we could give food or gift cards instead of cash. We shouldn’t worry, however, that God will condemn us for being “taken in” or giving money to the wrong person. As Matthew pointed out, we’re more likely to be condemned for not giving under the pretense of being responsible. God gives us a new day each morning, even though time and time again we squander his gift. We are called to imitate this open-handed generosity.

    You Are Not as Busy as You Think You Are

    Matthew’s concluding advice is to realize that you are not as busy as you think you are—and if you really are that busy, you should probably cut some things out of your life. While it might be difficult to give away money, it is even harder to give away time! Friendship is necessary, but if we are too busy we won’t have the time for the “interruption” of really seeing those God has placed in our path.

    Header Image: Last Judgement, 5th-century mosaic from Sant’Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna. Photo by Lawrence OP, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

  • Uncategorized

    The Knowledge of Christ and the Christian Community

    A Theology of History by Hans Urs von Balthasar contains the following passage about Christ’s relationship to time and his foreknowledge of future events:

    It is not the case that Christ before his Passion was only appearing to live in time…What tells us more than anything else that Jesus’ mode of time is indeed real is the fact that he does not anticipate the will of the Father. He does not do the precise thing which we try to do when we sin, which is to break out of time, within which are contained God’s dispositions for us, in order to arrogate to ourselves a sort of eternity, to “take the long view” and “make sure of things”. Both Irenaeus and Clement consider that original sin consisted in anticipation of this kind; and indeed, at the close of Revelation the reward which the Son bestows upon the victor is that fruit of Paradise which the sinner had to his own hurt stolen in anticipation. (Rev 2:7) God intended man to have all good, but in his, God’s, time; and therefore all disobedience, all sin, consists essentially in breaking out of time…Hence the importance of patience in the New Testament, which becomes the basic constituent of Christianity, more central even than humility…This may be seen from Jesus’s relation to “his hour”, which is the Father’s hour. Essentially, it is the hour that is coming, which, in its coming, is always there and therefore determines everything that happens before it and leads up to it, but still has this determinative character as something that is to come, something that can not be summoned…The concept he has of it—and this kind of knowledge he does have—has for its measure that which the Father reveals of it to him. One can therefore say in general (since “his hour” is the epitome of his mission) that his knowledge as God-man is measured by his mission. The knowledge is not itself the measure, but that which is measured; whereas his mission is the measure that measures all else. His perfection is his obedience, which does not anticipate. The use of his capacities has to be adapted to this standard. To regard Christ’s knowledge as though he carried out his actions in time from some vantage point of eternity—rather like a chess-player of genius who quickly foresees the whole course of the game, and simply moves his men through a game which for him is already over—would be to do away entirely with his temporality and so with his obedience, his patience, the merit of his redemptive existence; he would no longer be the model of a Christain existence and of Christian faith.  

    Of course, von Balthasar is not denying that Jesus was God, and as God knew all things. There are many passages in the Gospels that show Jesus predicting the future. He is God! And yet he is also fully human. He did not let his status as God obliterate his humanity. As St. Paul says, Jesus “did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.” (Philippians 2:6-7) During the temptation in the desert, Jesus rejected the suggestion to grasp at glory on his own terms. He would indeed rule over all nations and peoples, but only by following the will of the Father that led him to the cross. As von Balthasar points out, Christ showed this humility and obedience by living in the moment. As a man, he could learn and grow. (Luke 2:52) As a man, he could be surprised. (Matthew 8:10, Mark 6:6)

    The humility of Christ stems from his love. He loves us so much that he was willing to stoop down to reach us. Even more amazingly, he wishes to raise us to his own level. By incorporation in the Mystical Body, we are being integrated into the very life of the Trinity. This communal reality of the Mystical Body should be the basis of any community building attempt. In particular, I think that reflecting on Christ’s relationship to time and to knowledge can help us avoid certain spiritual errors that are common among those building community. 

    The Bad World and the Good Community?

    Devout Christians often misunderstand the true nature of temptation. We are tempted to obtain good things in the wrong way. That means that we need to be on our guard against spiritual pride and the other vices that can slip in under cover of apparent devotion. Instead, too many Christians are focused on the evils of the world “out there”. They correctly understand that such things as abortion and sexual perversions are contrary to the Gospel; but focusing on these issues can lead to a certain blindness regarding the more subtle forms of evil. This is particularly the case when Christian community is seen as a fortress or ark to hold at bay the evil of the outside world. Such a focus on other people’s sins is spiritually dangerous. It can promote the formation of a comfortable little “shire”, where all kinds of horrible spiritual sins can flourish under the cover of beautiful liturgies and seemingly devout families. Such spiritual pride goes before a fall. Eventually, God will allow the facade to crumble. Like the showy mushrooms that signal the presence of hidden decay, all the more blatant forms of evil will eventually crop up within the community itself. 

    The Desire for Control 

    As von Balthasar explains, the desire for control is the most fundamental temptation. The attitude of human beings toward God should be one of humble trust, surrender, and thanksgiving. Instead, we are tempted to doubt God’s goodness. We come to fear that he does not truly care for us, and so we set out to take care of ourselves. This was the temptation in the Garden of Eden: the suggestion that God was untrustworthy. 

    This desire for control can be seen in the individualism of the modern world. We are told that we need to “go it alone”, to control our own destinies. To do this, we break family and community ties. I recently came across an interesting example of this on social media. A commenter was arguing that young people should not live with their parents. Instead, he urged them to seek independence no matter what the cost. He said that he had moved away from home to live with five roommates and work several different jobs just to make ends meet, but independence was “worth it”. This is obviously absurd. Can anyone be truly independent? Why is sharing the cost of living with five unknown roommates more virtuous than sharing the cost of living with one’s parents? 

    The deeper, darker reality behind such views is that sharing an apartment with roommates is seen as superior precisely because of the lack of pre-existing ties. Family bonds are not chosen; they are simply given, received as a gift. Roommates, on the other hand, are chosen. They can be left behind when one no longer needs them. Our culture glorifies personal choice and individual freedom, but this leads to a deep unhappiness just as it did in the Garden of Eden. 

    As people become more and more aware of this fundamental lack in our society, community building starts to look more attractive. The danger is that community will become just another strategy for control. If we enter into a community with our culture’s individualistic mindset, we will fail. Community will be seen as a way to escape the dangers and problems of life, as a way of walling out conflicting ideas. Parents will see community as a way to gain control over children, leaders will see community as a path to power.

    In reality, however, community building is about relinquishing individual choice and receiving others as a gift. Any healthy community will contain differing perspectives and temperaments. Such differences will inevitably lead to tension. The Christian way is to accept such difficulties, instead of striking out on an individual search for fulfillment or attempting to coerce community into artificial uniformity. 

    The Problem with Blueprints 

    In one sense, “building community” is deeply paradoxical. How can we build something which must be organic? How can we plan for something that depends on the unpredictable nature of human relationships? Von Balthasar’s description of Christ’s knowledge and his relationship to time can help us to navigate this seeming contradiction. 

    In one sense, Christ foresaw the future. He understood his mission, and that mission required a certain vision of things yet to come. Similarly, as Christians we have a mission. In fact, our mission is a participation in the mission of Christ: showing the love of the Father to the world. Community is a key part of this mission; the pagans in the ancient world saw the love of the Christian community and were attracted by it. To fulfill this mission, we need to think about the future. As Pope Francis says, we need to “dream” of a better world. We need to have a vision of Christian community, or we will remain stuck in the status quo.

    Christ’s knowledge, however, did not keep him from truly living in time. He did not attempt to control events by drawing on an eternal perspective. Rather, he was docile to the will of the Father and the promptings of the Holy Spirit in the moment. Similarly, we need to live in the moment and be open to the voice of God. Discernment is essential, and discernment is ultimately a communal process. This means that our initial vision will probably be modified by the people and events we encounter along our path. 

    To maintain this flexibility, we need to fight the temptation to “grab” for power and control over events. We can’t let the initial vision degenerate into a mere “blueprint” of a future project. Living in the moment can keep this degeneration at bay. Having a meal with friends is a good and beautiful thing. It should be valued for what it is, not as a stepping stone to something in the future. It should not be seen as an opportunity to “build social capital” that can later be “invested” in some project. 

    Of course, such actions and activities may end up laying the foundation upon which a more intentional community is built. They can only become such a foundation, however, if we value them for what they are. We are to “seek first the kingdom of God”, and “all these things” will be given to us. The “kingdom of God” that we are to seek is “among us” in the here and now, not in some distant future.

    And when the future becomes the present, we may be surprised to find that what God has built upon our foundation was not what we had envisioned, but something much better. We will be able to say, like the steward in St. John’s Gospel, “You have kept the good wine until now”.

  • Let Us Dream

    Let Us Dream, Episode 4

    (Originally recorded during Advent 2021, so references to “last year” are references to 2020.)

    In this episode, Malcolm and Peter finish discussing the first chapter of Let Us Dream by Pope Francis. This is the fourth part of a series of episodes. The first episode is here, the second episode is here, and the third here. The following are some of the points we discussed.

    Viewing the Past

    In Chapter 1 of Let Us Dream, Pope Francis discusses our relationship to the past in light of the racial justice protests of 2020. He voices his support for those protesting against racial prejudice and injustice, but also notes that he is concerned by the growth of a flawed attitude toward the past. He writes:

    What worried me about the anti-racist protests in the summer of 2020, when many statues of historical figures were toppled in several countries, was the desire to purify the past. Some wanted to project onto the past the history they would like to have now, which requires them to cancel what came before. But it should be the other way around. For there to be true history there must be memory, which demands that we acknowledge the paths already trod, even if they are shameful. Amputating history can make us lose our memory, which is one of the few remedies we have against repeating the mistakes of the past. A free people is a people that remembers, is able to own its history rather than deny it, and learns its best lessons.

    In chapter 26 of the Book of Deuteronomy, Moses prescribed what the Israelites were to do after taking possession of the land the Lord had given them. They were to take the land’s first fruits to the priest as an offering, and pronounce a prayer of gratitude that recalls the people’s history. The prayer began: “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor.” Then came a story of shame and redemption: how my ancestor went down into Egypt, lived as an alien and a slave, but his people called on the Lord’s name and were brought out of Egypt, to this land.

    The ignominy of our past, in other words, is part of what and who we are. I recall this history not to praise past oppressors but to honor the witness and greatness of soul of the oppressed. There is a great danger in remembering the guilt of others in order to proclaim my own innocence.

    Of course, those who pulled down statues did so to draw attention to the wrongs of the past, and to deny honor to those who committed those wrongs. But when I judge the past through the lens of the present, seeking to purge the past of its shame, I risk committing other injustices, reducing a person’s history to the wrong they did.

    The past is always full of situations of shame: just read the genealogy of Jesus in the Gospels, which contains —as do all our families—quite a few characters who are hardly saints. Jesus does not reject his people or his history, but takes them up and teaches us to do likewise: not canceling the shame of the past but acknowledging it as it is.

    Of course, statues have always come down and been replaced by others, when what they stand for no longer speaks to a new generation. But this should be done through consensus-building, by debate and dialogue rather than acts of force. That dialogue must aim to learn from the past, rather than judge it through the eyes of the present.

    Attacking the Past rather than the Present

    Sometimes the past is attacked because attacking the past is safer than attacking evils in the present. For instance, large corporations that currently use slave labor can easily score points by condemning the racism and slavery of the past. Similarly, it is easy for modern individuals to “like” social media posts that condemn past slave owners—on mobile devices that are made with slave labor. In this way, too much attention to past evils can actually serve as a way to white-wash the present.

    A Spirituality of Humility

    As Pope Francis pointed out, the way the People of Israel related to the past was informed by a certain spirituality. They were supposed to remember how good God had been to them and how much they had been given. In this way, remembrance of the past was supposed to lead to gratitude. At the same time, they were supposed to remember how many times they had failed to live up to God’s covenant. Remembering their failures was supposed to make them humble before God.

    This remembering of the past was ritualized through festivals and religious ceremonies. It played a large role in guiding the people and in shaping their spirituality. By contrast, today we do not have a spiritual understanding of the past. We are often ungrateful for the benefits we have received. At the same time, we sometimes try to use the sins of the past as an excuse for turning away from faith in God.

    Mercy toward Others

    By remembering the sins of our collective past and how good God has been to us, we can also grow in the quality of mercy toward others. The People of Israel were supposed to care for the stranger and the poor precisely because they had been poor themselves. They were to avoid oppression because they themselves had been oppressed in a strange land. If we imitated this view of history, it should make us more generous toward migrants and the marginalized in the present.

    The Personal Past

    We should have the same attitude toward our personal past. We all have sins and failures in our past for which God has forgiven us. We have all received blessings that we did not deserve or merit. We are all in need of redemption.

    This should make us charitable and merciful to others. We’ve received so much from God; in response, we have to give to those around us.

    Peter brought up the story of his walking pilgrimages. Many times, he relied on the generosity of others for food and shelter. Remembering this helps him to be generous, to give freely since he received freely.

    The Redemption of History

    Pope Francis mentions that the genealogy of Jesus includes many sinners. Jesus does not reject this flawed past; rather, he takes it up and redeems it. He brings the best out of it. That’s the way God works with us; he brings good out of the brokenness of human beings.. And we must do likewise. We should acknowledge our brokenness and the brokenness of the past, and use it to build a better path going forward.

    History and Community

    The past is often a burden, a source of shame. When one is part of a group, one ends up answering for the actions of that group. As Catholics and as Americans we have to answer for sins that we didn’t personally commit.

    The Christian way is to bear such burdens with love and humility. There are, however, two different ways in which people try to escape these burdens. These two kinds of escapism map onto two flawed attitudes toward community in general.

    We’ve talked before about how Christians sometimes join a community in a futile attempt to escape the messiness of life. In reality, however, the advantage of a community is that it forces individuals to directly confront the messy reality of life. Communities often bring out the worst in others and in ourselves; we can’t as easily put on a good “show” for others when we live in close proximity to them. Such exposure to reality is humbling. At the same time, however, community can bring out the best in people as they carry the burdens of life together.

    The temptation is to deny that mistakes and burdens exist and pretend that everything is perfect. This is particularly the case when people join a community with unrealistic expectations of perfection. If the community tries to escape into idealism and an imaginary perfection, it will ultimately fail.

    Since community is often messy, people sometimes try to avoid community altogether. If one isn’t part of any community, then one will never have to carry the burden of another—whether that burden is spiritual or physical. In our society, many people are rootless and lead individualistic lives for just this reason. Our culture encourages people to leave behind the particularities of their communities and families for individual freedom. In the religious sphere, this is why many people try to confine religion to their personal relationship with God. That way, they won’t have to carry the burden of belonging to a religious organization.

    These are both flawed responses. We need community and we must take up the burden that the community will inevitably lay on us. Community makes us part of a greater whole, and gives us the aid that we all need.

    Our choices when confronted with the burden of history are similar. Too often when people say we should remember our past, what they really mean is that we should approve of the past. To aid in this approval, they produce a slanted version of history which ignores the crimes and sins of their group or nation. They refuse to carry the burden by denying that any past mistakes or sins exist. Truthful remembering of the past will always include a certain amount of shame, since we’re in a fallen world. It calls for repentance—but not rejection.

    Such rejection is the other error, the mistake of rootlessness. If we deny that we have anything in common with the past and look on it merely with rejection, we are not being truthful. We are each the product of a certain history and a particular community, whether we like it or not. We can’t imagine ourselves as spotless heroes compared with the benighted individuals that came before us.

    Choosing our Past

    Too often, individuals today choose their own history and narrative. When we are isolated and individualistic, we can pick and choose the history we want for our own lives and for our country. We can reinforce this choice by only exposing ourselves to that with with which we agree. Our polarized news media makes this easier. Social media can also feed this dynamic by isolating individuals in self-chosen echo chambers.

    We need to resist this dynamic and take ownership of our history and world as they really are. That’s what Pope Francis invites us into. We can’t be afraid of what we might be faced with. We have to allow the history of other people and other groups to challenge and change the way we see the world.

    Community is a great help in this process. As Tim Keller said, there WILL be people with different political viewpoints in a community—or it isn’t a very good community. This will produce tension. In a community, people will be confronted with perspectives that they never would have taken the trouble to seek out. Even the differing personalities found in a community can create this kind of creative tension.

    We Are All Connected

    Nobody’s history is isolated from anybody else’s history. For instance, we are all part of the tragic history of the Native Americans who were killed or displaced by European colonizers. This tragedy can’t be blamed on any one individual in the present, but it is still something that we have collectively inherited. We need to acknowledge that we’ve inherited a world that is terribly unequal and that our own ancestors were often part of this history of exploitation and conquest. We have to make amends for the past as best we can. If we don’t do anything about it and merely ignore the fact, then we will become guilty for the sins of our ancestors. We will become complicit if we continue to take advantage of their misdeeds.

    In a sense, nobody can own anything with clean hands. That’s why we are told to “make friends for ourselves with unrighteous mammon”: by giving it to the poor. That’s the only way to avoid condemnation for holding wealth, since all wealth at some point was derived from injustice. We are each the indirect beneficiaries of shocking evils. It is one thing, an easy thing to condemn the evils of the past. It is a much harder thing to live out that condemnation in one’s way of life!

    There are the great societal evils; but there are also personal evils that we are complicit in. We only need to think of the sweatshop labor that went into our gadgets, or the migrant workers who are harvesting our food. Almost anything we buy is cheap simply because somebody else was abused. It is critical that we try to avoid benefiting from exploitation, past and present, as much as possible.

    Listening to the History of Others

    Another important way we relate to history is by listening to the history of others, both as individuals and as groups. Particularly when those others come from very different backgrounds than ours, this will expand our horizons.

    Everyone has a story to share; they are made in the image of God and have the potential for sainthood. With that in mind, we can learn from everyone. Of course, what they are saying might be incorrect or flawed, but even so we can learn by trying to understand them. Why do they hold these ideas? Where did this perspective originate? We should take particular care to listen when people are speaking out of their own experience. We can show love in letting that experience be received and understood, and find points of common ground and agreement.

    That doesn’t mean that we should depart from the truth or the teaching of the Church, but it means that other people and other traditions can shed light on aspects of the Truth of which we are not aware. Eastern culture and spirituality, for instance, can help to expand our Western traditions.

    It is easy to become angry at those who disagree with you. That’s a funny thing about human beings. If somebody is wrong, we should be sorry for them because they are missing something. Malcolm pointed out that if he suddenly met his past self he would violently disagree with that past self! It can be good for us to remember that we didn’t always get everything right. Our past mistakes should inform the way we respond to the mistakes of others.

    Similarly, as a nation, if we think we’ve always got it right, then we will not be to enter into the kind of dialogue and fraternity to which Pope Francis is calling us.

    The Standards of the Times

    Pope Francis also talks about not judging the past by the standards of the present. That almost sounds relativistic, as if he was saying that different times have different standards. He isn’t saying that, however. The standards are always the same. But God is going to judge each of us by what we did with what we have been given: our health, resources, etc. Those who have more are called to a higher standard. Privileges come with responsibility. This also applies to each individual’s access to the truth. At some points in the past, it was perhaps harder to see certain truths. So when we are discussing historical figures, the question should be; what did they do with what they were given? Did they to some extent transcend the flaws of their culture? Or did they sink below the level of their era? That should make a difference in how we judge their actions.

    The Beauty of Our Environment

    Let Us Dream discusses our relationship to Creation and our environment. As the Pope says, we can’t carry on as if we could be healthy in a world that is sick! Creation is a gift for us to cherish and tend.

    In particular, he mentions that beauty is the entry point to ecological awareness. In a world focused on technological efficiency, beauty is more important than ever.

    Today, we tend to impose things on the landscape, instead of being in love with a place and working in harmony with the beauty of the place. We create the same dreary strip malls and sub-developments across a huge diversity of environments.

    This is a problem, because the role of beauty is to lift up our hearts to something greater than ourselves. Beauty is going to play a significant role in dreaming of a new world and embracing a community that is greater than ourselves.

    By contrast, when people are surrounded by trash and an ugly built environment, they have less of a sense of dignity. If we treat the world with contempt, we are treating the giver with contempt. In disrespecting the Creation, we’re not only disrespecting God, but also those around us. We send a message about the value of those around us when we create certain kinds of environments. We need a sense of ownership, of responsibility for our places and our communities. How can we create beautiful spaces that invite people to cherish the world and one another?

    C. S. Lewis wrote about two different ways to see trees. We can see them primarily as a source of lumber, or we can see them in all their glory as amazing creatures of God and only in a secondary way as a source of lumber. Obviously, the first kind of viewpoint will not lead to restraint or respect or gratitude.

    Beauty is not useful; rather, it is a recognition of what a thing is in itself. If we see only utility and not beauty, then everything (including other people) will be seen as something to be used up and ultimately thrown away.

    Seeing Properly in Contemplation

    This whole first chapter is about seeing properly. And if you move too fast, you won’t see properly. We can’t see if we are not contemplative, if we don’t slow down and really try to see what is around us. God will give us a deeper vision if we are attentive. Advent is about being attentive, or the coming of the Lord will pass us by. If we want to avoid that, we have to be open to everything around us, since God can speak to us through anything.

    The shepherds and the wise men received a sign, and then they acted on it. They were ready. In fact, it came to them because they were ready. If we are attentive, God will invite us into something different.

    On a purely practical level, the sign came to the shepherds and the wise men because they were awake at night. The shepherds were keeping watch. That was because they were the poor and had to work at night.

    The wise men had spent a whole lifetime being attentive, even if they didn’t know what was going to happen or what exactly they were going to see. Many others may have seen the sign, but without a lifetime of attention, it didn’t mean to anything.

    Chapter 2

    In our next episode on Let Us Dream will be moving from chapter one, about being attentive, into the second chapter about discernment. If we are attentive, we will see many things: but then comes discernment, discovering what God is telling us. Think of the difference the same piece of news made to the wise men and to Herod. We need discernment to understand what we see. The second chapter is very Ignatian, very much about discerning spirits and the voices that we hear.

    At some point we all need to choose. We need to make a decision to follow God in everything. Such a decision might draw us away from what is comfortable. God never forces anything on us: how we will respond is up to our free choice.

    In a way, this is a good summary of the community building process as described by our guests. First comes openness to God and to those around us. Then comes discernment, which is ultimately a communal process. Over time, the small initial group can work to discern the best path forward. And finally, the members of the community may find themselves involved in projects they would never have even imagined. But it all starts humbly with openness and discernment.

    St. Peter’s Basilica by Vitold Muratov, CC BY-SA 4.0; Let Us Dream Cover image, Fair Use

  • Simone Weil House

    Interview with Simone Weil House

    In this episode I interview Bert Fitzgerald and Emma Coley from the Simone Weil House, a new Catholic Worker in Portland, Oregon. They explain the ministry and vision of their house of hospitality and outline an exciting new pilot project: demonstrating how an existing faith community can become a community of mutuality within a credit union, able to provide interest free loans to one another.

    Origins

    Bert founded Simone Weil House almost three years ago. Prior to moving to Portland,  Bert served as a live-in volunteer at the South Bend Catholic Worker and experimented with a number of alternative economic projects. In Portland, he hoped to start a project that would model some of the less emphasized aspects of the movement. As well as hospitality, he hoped to develop an alternative model of Christian economics.

    Emma had volunteered for a Catholic Worker house while she was in high school, and when she was in college she got to know a self organized community for the homeless called Second Chance Village. On a visit to Portland she encountered the newly formed Simone Weil House, and eventually came back to join the project a little over a year ago.

    Simone Weil

    The French mystic and philosopher Simone Weil was chosen as the patron of the new Catholic Worker House. Bert described her as the Christian answer to Nietzsche. She wrestled with basic questions with the same exacting honesty, but found truth rather than dissimulation in the mystery of Christ.

    Simone Weil’s thought can also help us to overcome the “right/left” dichotomy and the compartmentalization of life in general. I recently wrote an article that draws on Weil’s spirituality of attention.

    Milestones

    The project started out in a simple and humble way. Bert stressed that he wanted it to provide an example of “Christ Room Hospitality”, something that any home could participate in. By working with a local provider of services for the homeless, Bert had got to know several individuals who were in need of housing. So with his landlord’s permission he invited them to share his house.

    Over time, the number of people being housed increased. Simone Weil house acquired tiny houses and converted storage units to provide more living space. Eventually they were able to clean up and use the “Hell House”, a trashed drug house across the street. After a thorough cleaning and two exorcisms, this became “Dorothy Day House”. On any given day, there are now between 11 and 14 people living in the two houses.

    Interest free loans

    As well as providing hospitality and other services such as free laundry facilities, the Simone Weil house has started a community of economic mutuality that has partnered with Notre Dame Federal Credit Union to make interest free loans available to its members..

    This project is grounded in Christian spirituality. We all tend to treat members of our families in one way, and members of the wider public in a different way. But what if we broadened the circle of people we treated as family? Isn’t that part of a truly Christian outlook on the world? We are all part of God’s family now, and should treat one another accordingly.

    This attitude can even be found in the Old Testament. Much of the Old Testament law was concerned with social justice. The people of God were supposed to make sure that individuals or families didn’t fall “through the cracks” due to inter-generational poverty. The Jubilee years were designed to prevent this from happening. Similarly, there was an obligation to redeem the debts of relatives so that they did not fall into debt bondage.

    Under the New Covenant, we have an even deeper obligation to redeem debts for one another. Christ died to redeem us from our spiritual bondage. Having received such a great grace, how could we begrudge the effort to redeem others from their earthly debts?

    This was actually the origin of Credit Unions. Today they operate in much the same way as other banks, but originally they were founded by religious communities as a way of looking out for one another. The Simone Weil house is trying to recover this tradition.

    In Practice

    Simone Weil House has a bank account with the Notre Dame Federal Credit Union called the “redemption fund”. Individuals who who join the mutual community open an account with NDFCU and can choose to have $150 sent to the fund. Simone Weil house identifies local recipients who are in need of loans. They then work to find a “guarantor”, someone who will provide a security for the loan.

    In particular, they try to make the whole process serve the building of local community. The guarantor and recipient know one another and build a relationship. In this way, their project is trying to reverse the way that money tends to tear down and atomize community.

    An Example

    An example can help to illustrate how this process works. The following quote comes from a Simone Weil House newsletter reporting on the past year of the project.

    The loan recipient, an older man on a fixed income, was in a car accident last year that left him with high medical bills. Unable to access a reputable bank due to his lack of credit, he accepted a high interest credit card offer he received in the mail. He quickly became buried in debt at an incredible 38% interest. He heard about our community while volunteering his time at a local parish food bank, where one of our steering committee members happens to also volunteer. We were able to refinance his debt at 0% interest, and this steering committee member ultimately served as this borrower’s guarantor. Since getting connected with our community through this program, the borrower now comes by our Catholic Worker house multiple times per week with food for our community and to stock our community free fridge.

    Different Kinds of Security

    The various projects of Simone Weil house highlight something this podcast has discussed before: the different kinds of security. One the one hand, there is the individual attempt at personal security through possessions. This is condemned by the Gospel, but is a defining characteristic of our time. On the other hand, there is the Christian kind of security which is based on mutual self-giving within a loving community. For more on this topic, see our episode on voluntary poverty.

    For more information on the many projects of Simone Weil House, visit their website!

  • Uncategorized

    Is the “Morning Offering” still Valid in the Modern World?

    Perhaps the greatest teaching of the Second Vatican Council is the universal call to holiness. It is, at least, the key to properly understanding the Council, according to Fr. Gaitley’s book The One Thing is Three. What does following this call look like in the modern world? Is it really possible to be a saint in suburbia? 

    The Little Way of the Morning Offering 

    Holiness does not consist in grand gestures or extraordinary deeds. Instead, for most of us holiness consists in quiet fidelity to the duties of our state in life. We are called to follow what St. Therese called her “little way”: doing small things with great love. Feeding one’s children, the performance of daily tasks, and casual interactions with others can all become transformed if we do them through, in, with, and for Christ. This is the meaning of the Offertory of the  Mass. We offer ourselves along with the bread and wine, to become transformed through God’s grace. In popular Christian piety, this is reflected in the beautiful practice of the Morning Offering prayer. 

    Concentration Camps, Arms Manufacturing, and the Local Grocery Store

    What if one’s daily duties, however, were totally incompatible with the Christian life? As a friend of mine put it, what if one worked as a guard for a Nazi concentration camp? Obviously, it would be absurd to attempt the consecration of such a life by offering it to God.

    None of us are engaged in such blatant evil. And yet, there is good reason to wonder if our daily lives can truly be consecrated to the honor of God. What if one works for Northrop Grumman or Lockheed Martin building drones and missiles that our military will use in ways that contradict Catholic Just War theory? What if one works for an insurance company that provides coverage for abortions, or a government agency that advocates for abortion? What if one works for a credit card company or bank that lends money at usurious interest? What if one works for a fossil fuel company that contributes to climate change and the flooding of villages on the other side of the world? Or a so-called “Green” energy company whose lithium and cobalt mines are  destroying lives in the Global South?  

    Quite apart from the dubious nature of so many jobs in the modern world, what if one’s daily routine includes buying produce harvested by exploited migrant workers? Their cries reach the Lord of Hosts, as St. James tells us. What if the clothes one buys cost the life of a sweatshop worker in Bangladesh? 

    Indeed, all of our work, all of our lives are to some extent destructive. I’m just as much trapped in this as anyone else. I work in graphic design, producing periodicals that make a quick journey from printing press to landfill. What a trivial and irresponsible use of the world’s finite resources, when so many people are going hungry! I contribute to the “great symbol drain”: the over-utilization and consequent misuse of religious imagery. Try as I might, I can’t always avoid funding evil through my purchases. What are we to do with our terribly flawed lives?

    The Kingdom of God in our Daily Lives

    For most of us, the answer is not to drop everything and “flee to the fields” or “head for the hills”. We have families and commitments that we can not break. We are trapped: in a certain sense, we are prisoners of the systems of evil we can’t escape. And yet we can’t give way to complacency. We can’t surrender to the systems which have imprisoned us. I think the answer must be threefold.

    If we feel trapped, we can offer that up for all the other people who are trapped in worse positions. We shouldn’t fall into the mistake of thinking that just because we are trapped we are somehow unable to follow Christ. Christ himself was “trapped” in unjust situations throughout his life. Our situation does not absolve us from doing the small things with great love. The Morning Offering is still relevant, along with all the works of unpretentious virtue that it implies. We should see our offering not as a consecration of the social evil in our lives, but rather as a share in the sorrow of Christ weeping over the evil and ruin of his city. 

    As Father Simon Tugwell writes in The Beatitudes:

    That is often the way it is in life. Life in this world is a trap. Over and over again we find ourselves in situations which constrain us, and there is no true escape. We daydream of ideal choices, but we have to live with and in the trap. We are trapped in working conditions or personal relationships which bring out the worst in us, we are trapped in the consequences of our own or others’ past misdeeds or follies, we are trapped in the social and economic systems in which we live. We have only the mammon of unrighteousness with which to invest for eternal life. 

    The resulting sense of powerlessness is one of the major psychological pains of our time, and it can easily lead us to despair. 

    The answer that the Gospel gives is an austere one … It is not by fretting and flapping, but by bearing the cross of our helplessness and frustration, in union with Christ bearing his cross, that we shall find any genuine power for a more satisfying life. 

    To offer our situation up in solidarity with others who are oppressed by modernity, we need to stay aware of what is happening and not shrink back. It can be more comfortable to ignore the evil in our world, but we can’t give in to that temptation. If this is our cross to bear, as Father Tugwell says, we should experience the pain of it.  We have to think about the sweatshop workers, the migrant laborers, the peasants starving after their crops were destroyed by climate change, and the victims of our unjust wars. We should spend time in prayer for and with the suffering and oppressed of the world. 

    Part of this remembering can consist in small but concrete practices that put us in solidarity with others. Voluntary poverty can play a part in this. So can practices such as refusing to buy items made in China or other countries that lack labor protections. To the extent possible, such practices should be used to distance ourselves from the benefits of oppression. Our “101 Ways to Change Your Life” list provides a range of suggestions for such small changes in lifestyle. 

    Such small changes and such awareness will help to keep the longing for a better world alive in our hearts. Faithfulness in small things will pave the way for the ability to be faithful in greater things if God wills it so. Ultimately, we long for the coming of Christ, but also for the coming of his reign of peace in the here and now. We need to keep such longing alive so that when the chance comes, we are ready to change our lives to better reflect the Gospel. 

    Such chances revolve around the power of community. An isolated family is only able to do so much. But if we gather with others who share similar longings, we can begin to escape the reign of sin in our modern world. Together, we can start taking concrete steps toward establishing the reign of Christ in our lives.

    Image of downtown Denver by R0uge; CC BY-SA 4.0

  • Anniversary Episode

    The Happy Are You Poor Blog and Podcast has now been running for over a year. In this episode, I get together with Jason and Peter to discuss the past year and possible directions going forward. We also wanted to express our gratitude to all those who have helped the project to develop and grow, particularly the many guests who have shared their stories with us.

    Episodes in a Nutshell

    During the episode, we discussed our favorite moments from the podcast. Due to time constraints, we weren’t able to cover everything. In particular, we discussed the many interviews with community members. In chronological order, the project has included interviews with the following:

    We have also interviewed three authors. We spoke with:

    And we have two ongoing series of podcasts: One on Laudato Si with Jason (Part one, Part two) and one on Let Us Dream with Peter Land (Part one, Part two, Part three).

    Important Themes

    There are a variety of themes that have come up over and over again during the course of the project. We discussed some of these during the episode.

    Honesty

    Life in community is not perfect. In fact, if a community bills itself as a perfect place where the members can escape the sin and struggle of the outside world, it is probably a cult rather than an authentic community. In a true community, one experiences a “sand-paper effect” of rubbing up against many different people with different personalities and ideas.

    This close proximity can bring out the best in people, but it can also make apparent their flaws and weaknesses. For the individual, this can actually be a good thing. We tend to wear a “mask” in public, presenting ourselves as better than we really are. In community, we don’t have this option. This gives us a chance to grow in humility and to become more authentic in our spiritual life.

    Ordinary People

    Closely connected with this concept of honesty is the the concept of being normal and ordinary. Too often, community is seen as something special or extraordinary. Those in community can be seen and come to see themselves as Christian “super-heroes”. In reality, community is a normal and essential part of the Christian life. As William Cavanaugh explained, community is inherent in the Eucharistic structure of the Christian Faith.

    Diversity

    Every community has its own charism, just as individual people do. While we can learn from the experiences of different communities, communities shouldn’t be replicated.

    The Danger of Stability

    We discussed the fact that community is generally seen as something static and stable. This can be a danger, however. Communities can become stagnant and closed to the Holy Spirit. They can find too much comfort in their normal routines and practices. And so in building community, we need to strive to remain open to others and to outside perspectives.

    The Catholic Worker communities are a really good example of this. Their focus on aiding the marginalized in a personal way creates a diverse community. Similarly, their round table discussions promote the participation of those with differing points of view.

    Intentional Community: a Contradiction in Terms?

    Most of the communities we’ve discussed have been very intentional and structured. They have probation periods for new members, vows or commitments, and a formal identity. In a sense, many of them are rather like lay monasteries. They’re very inspiring, but probably not for everyone. Most people are called to build community in a more informal way. We hope that we can draw lessons from these communities that will help people to build more organic, informal community.

    There is a certain tension between highly intentional community and the Christian life. For a Christian, all other Christians should be part of their community. Catholics in particular need to remain within the parish structure; if they pull away from it trouble may result.

    This can be difficult, since in the United States most parishes lack a community spirit. They have become “Mass Stops” where people go to “get the sacraments”. This ignores the very purpose of the sacraments, which are intended to bind individuals into the community of the mystical body of Christ.

    Further, as Jason pointed out, we should really include everyone in a given area, Christian or not, in our community. We need to be an open, outgoing community rather than one that has inward focus. This is a major theme in the pontificate of Pope Francis.

    Despite the “deadness” of so many parishes, a new interest in community is emerging. Peter remarked on the number of people he’s met who are looking for something more, a deeper experience of the Faith that can only be found in Community. Similarly, people don’t need to start out with the vision of communal life. Part of our mission is to present the vision of community life in such a way that others can embrace it.

    A start can be made, as so many of our guests have pointed out, by just gathering with a few other people who share the vision of community. Such gathering can be risky if it stops there. It can form a clique, rather than a community. But if such a group is intentionally open to others, it can act as a catalyst for a more communal way of life.

    The ideal is probably a network of interacting communities in a local area. This would provide the flexibility needed to accommodate differing charisms and ways of life while still providing the structure and support that community can bring.

    Economics

    Community members need to live life with one another. Economics has to be part of such a shared life. Today, our economic life and our built environment tear down community life rather than building it up. If communal life is ever to become the norm again for Christians, we need to build a different and more supportive economy. At least on a local level, shared work is essential to community development. Such shared work can provide the disparate individuals of a community with a shared interest and a sense of common purpose.

    Plans for the Year Ahead

    In the upcoming year, we hope to focus more on these questions of organic community development and communal economics. If you’ve got ideas for podcast topics or guests, or about the podcast in general, please contact us!

  • Journey
    Uncategorized

    The Journey of Community

    I recently had an interesting conversation with Jason Wilde and Peter Land, in which we reflected on the first year of our podcast project and discussed the direction of the project going forward. The conversation will be edited and released as an anniversary podcast episode. In this essay, I want to expand on some of the themes that came up.

    Walking as Community

    We often think of community as a stable, static thing, rooted in a particular place. Peter Land recently took part in a three day walking pilgrimage, and found a deep sense of community among the participants. It made him reflect on the traveling community that surrounded Christ, and also on voluntary poverty and detachment. When one has to carry one’s belongings, simplicity of life starts to seem more attractive! We’re called to be open to the Holy Spirit, journeying together toward the Kingdom of Heaven. Is the rooted village or neighborhood really the best metaphor for the Christian life? Is such a community even the best setting for the Christian life?

    The Dangers of Community

    A false sense of security and contentment can certainly be a danger for Christain communities. In my interview with Charles Moore and Rick Burke from the Bruderhof, they pointed out that community members can become attached to their ways of life. They can also slip into seeing the community as an end in itself, as a substitute for following Christ and being open to the Holy Spirit. Communities need to be on guard against becoming self-referential and satisfied with themselves. 

    Solutions

    A spirit of poverty keeps these problems in check. Although factual frugality of life is necessary, being “poor in spirit” means more than merely living simply. Wealth represents an attempt at control, a grasping at security. The rich fool of Luke 12 thought he was all set once his barns were full of grain, but his security was an illusion. Even without material wealth, we can fall prey to a spirit of wealth that desires control and security on individual terms. To avoid this, the community must practice poverty, but must also exercise a “preferential option” for the poor. Poverty comes in many forms, and there are many ways that communities can reach out to the poor of the surrounding community, whether those in need of food and clothing or merely those in need of a listening ear. The community must refuse to treat anyone as “outsiders”, and instead should see everyone as part of their community in Christ. 

    By reaching out and entering into the life of others, we are freed from false contentment, security, and routine. The life of Catholic Worker communities provides a good example of this dynamic in practice. Not only do they practice voluntary poverty and service to the poor; they invite “outsiders” to participate in the life of the community and host “round table discussions” that provide a platform for dialogue with a diversity of views.

    The Church

    These same dynamics can affect the Church as a whole. Throughout Church history, there has been the temptation to complacency with how things are, which leads to insular thinking and a focus on the structures of power in the Church rather than on our journey to the Kingdom. As Pope Francis has often reminded us, we are a pilgrim Church on the road with one another, an evangelizing Church reaching out to those on the peripheries. We must never lose sight of the Apocalypse, the coming of the kingdom for which we pray in the Our Father and for which we are called to work in our lives. Only by going beyond ourselves, reaching out toward God and neighbor, can we avoid the stagnation that leads to decay.

  • Laudato Si, Episode 2: An Ecological Conversion

    This is the second episode in which Malcolm Schluenderfritz and Jason Wilde discuss Laudato Si. Pope Francis has said that Laudato Si is not a “green” encyclical, but rather a “social” encyclical. Our first episode set the stage by discussing the long history of Catholic Social Teaching (CST). In this episode, we discuss Laudato Si‘s call for “ecological conversion”.

    The Religious Perspective of Laudato Si

    In chapter 2 of Laudato Si, Pope Francis writes:

    A spirituality which forgets God as all-powerful and Creator is not acceptable. That is how we end up worshiping earthly powers, or ourselves usurping the place of God, even to the point of claiming an unlimited right to trample his creation underfoot. The best way to restore men and women to their rightful place, putting an end to their claim to absolute dominion over the earth, is to speak once more of the figure of a Father who creates and who alone owns the world. Otherwise, human beings will always try to impose their own laws and interests on reality.

    Pope Francis is not discussing environmentalism as a secular scientist might, from a purely material standpoint. Rather, he is calling for a spiritual conversion. A conversion is a turning, a change of heart. In this case, we are being called to turn away from ourselves and toward God, our neighbors, and God’s Creation. Without such conversion, as Laudato Si put it, we will try to impose our own laws on reality. This kind of pride leads to ecological destruction and social dysfunction. Laudato Si contains the following quote from Pope Benedict XVI: “The external deserts in the world are growing, because the internal deserts have become so vast”.

    If Christians do not bring their spirituality to bear on the question of protecting the environment, the response to our current crisis will be based on secular ideologies. These ideologies will prove insufficient for the task, and may create greater harm. It is our duty to lead on this issue.

    The Common Good

    As we discussed in our earlier episode, this is a social encyclical first and foremost, not a “green” one. And so an important component of an ecological conversion is the CST principle of the primacy of the common good.

    The world is not ours. The earth is the Lord’s. He made it for us—for all of us. Whenever we work for the common good, or preform a work of mercy, we are paying a debt of justice. Part of the common good we must work toward is a healthy environment.

    Common goods differ from private goods in a crucial way. Private goods diminish when they are shared. For instance, if two people share $10, each of them will have less than $10. Common goods, however, are those things that do not diminish when shared.

    The very highest common good is the Beatific Vision. It isn’t a scarce resource we need to compete for; even if there are billions of people in heaven, it won’t “run out”. We should try to mirror this perspective even in our earthy lives. If we won’t be in competition in the world to come, then we should try live out that aspect of the Kingdom of God in the here and now.

    Here on earth, the common good of a society is something that all share in. It is not merely a collection of private goods. Nor should the common good of society be seen as an attack on the private good of the individual. We see this perverse understanding of the common good in the Gospel, where Caiaphas says that it is better that one man to die for the people. Rather, the common good of society is something that no one individual can provide and that benefits everyone.

    Jason brought up an interesting example of a particular common good. The security and order produced by a stable society benefits everyone. In many societies, however, security is not a common good. In such a situation, each private individual and each business needs to provide their own security in the form of armed guards. Those too poor to afford guards have to do without security.

    Clean air is a obvious common good. If the air is clean, it benefits everyone. If your neighbor’s air is dirty, your air will also be dirty.

    The Throw Away Culture

    A key point in the first chapter of Laudato Si is the danger of a “throw away culture”. This isn’t the first time Pope Francis has used the term. In Evangelli Gaudium, he wrote:

    Human beings are themselves considered consumer goods to be used and then discarded. We have created a “throw away” culture which is now spreading.

    A “throw away culture” stems from a grave lack of respect. In our society, we are encouraged to see things and people merely as useful. When they are no longer useful, they are discarded. Obviously, it is far more serious to throw away unborn children or the disabled elderly than to treat material things in a wasteful way. Still, the spirit behind these actions is the same. Not only that, but the “throw away culture” applied to goods actually is disrespectful both to human beings and to God. Creation is God’s gift to us, and treating it with disrespect is an insult to the giver. At the same time, our cavalier use of material things can directly impact others, and can lower the dignity of those who produce what we consume.

    A good example of this dynamic is the way that companies bulldoze fairly new buildings to put up something new, rather than taking the time to build solidly and remodel buildings for new purposes. This disrespect not only leads to a fantastic waste of energy and resources, but it creates a sterile, ugly built environment that depresses the spirit of those who live within it. It also strips the dignity from the labor of construction workers.

    Laudato Si‘s vision of “Dominion”

    Quoting St. John Paul II, Pope Francis condemns a view of the world focused solely using it for our own ends. It is right and proper to use the world, but this use can’t obscure the inherent, intrinsic value of the things around us.

    The wrong understanding of the Christian concept of “Dominion” can lead to this use-oriented vision. In Genesis, we read that humanity is given charge of creation, to till and keep it. This kind of dominion does not mean that we have absolute control. Neither does it justify the abuse of the world. Rather, it calls us to have a steward’s care of what has been given to us.

    In an earlier episode with Augustine Tardiff from Madonna House, we discussed this concept. Augustine described his experience of working on the Madonna House farm, which helped him to gain a proper understanding of dominion. In particular, he talked about feeding a calf which seemed bent on making the process as difficult as possible. By taking care of animals, we can come to a faint understanding of the care God has for us. Exercising such care also fulfills our mission to show forth the image of God in which we were created.

    The Interconnected Nature of Reality

    We’re connected to all of creation. We couldn’t live without it. As Pope Francis writes in Laudato Si:

    It cannot be emphasized enough how everything is interconnected. Time and space are not independent of one another, and not even atoms or subatomic particles can be considered in isolation. Just as the different aspects of the planet – physical, chemical and biological – are interrelated, so too living species are part of a network which we will never fully explore and understand. A good part of our genetic code is shared by many living beings. It follows that the fragmentation of knowledge and the isolation of bits of information can actually become a form of ignorance, unless they are integrated into a broader vision of reality.

    The interconnected nature of reality means that care of creation is inseparable from care for others. We need a consistent life ethic.

    The idea of a consistent life ethic is sometimes abused, or seen as a way to downplay the gravity of abortion. In reality, a consistent life ethic is a matter of reverence for all life, even when such reverence is inconvenient for us. All too often, our modern world tries to avoid inconvenience by replacing life with technology, something we can control. Life is God’s, and God’s way is not ours. Technology, by contrast, is our own thought projected onto the world, and so is more convenient for us.

    Lack of reverence is a sin that flows through everything else. If we don’t see trees as a gift from God, that sin will propagate, and affect other life, even human life. That is why Laudato Si is a human life encyclical. Environmental degradation eventually affects human life; this is how that sin manifests. Jason talked about seeing first hand how the destruction of rain forest in Costa Rica has led to poverty, forced migration, and conflict. We have to realize that the seemingly small sin of not caring for life will spread.

    The Common Destination of Goods

    Going back to the idea of the common good: one of the principles of Catholic social teaching is that the Earth was created for all. No piece of property came with a name tag on it. Of course, we’re not communists. As Catholics, we do recognize the right to own private property, but private property is only legitimately owned if that ownership better serves the universal destination of human goods. Ownership is not an excuse for using the earth’s resources for one’s self.

    This is particularly true in environmental matters. If someone owns critical aspects of an ecosystem and destroys them, that ownership is not legitimate. The earth is not theirs to destroy in such a way, and this destruction will affect other people. Modern scientific investigation actually supports this idea of the common good. I can’t just tinker with my property without affecting other people. Paving a parking lot increases stream flow. If enough people pave over their private land, it will end up flooding other people downstream.

    The idea of unlimited individual freedom is dangerous. Christ gave up his freedom for us, and we should imitate him. Our culture does not understand Gospel poverty, but we must demonstrate this. We must be willing to give up some of our personal freedom for the Common Good; this allows us to treat others as brothers and sisters. Otherwise our relationship will be adversarial, confrontational.

    Voluntary Poverty

    In our culture, the traditional Christian practices of poverty and fasting and simplicity of life seem illegitimate. Such asceticism, however, is the only way to live out an ecological spirituality. How many social and environmental problems could be solved with a little more frugality!

    For Christians, this is much more than just a matter of practicality. Voluntary poverty helps us to de-clutter our lives. It helps us to honor the idea of the universal destination of human goods. We can’t justify holding onto excess when others are starving. Voluntary poverty is not the same as destitution. Rather, without voluntary poverty, there will be destitution. Our voluntary poverty allows us to alleviate the destitution of others. For more on the topic of voluntary poverty, see our episode here.

    The Depth of the Christian Message

    Even the modern, secular world has come to realize the potential benefits of a simpler life. For instance, various political figures have called for meatless Mondays to benefit the environment. This has led to absurd situations in which some Christians are protesting against calls for material sacrifice. It would be much better if, instead, we saw such situations as a chance to do something in solidarity with those around us, while at the same time giving the practice a deeper, spiritual meaning.

    This is a good example of a general theme: the Christian message is deeper than the secular message. That is the point of Laudato Si. The Church is not opposed to the secular concern for the environment; rather, the Church does environmentalism better than the world. This is a healthier understanding than one which sees the Christian message as merely the opposite of whatever the world is saying at a given time.

    The Technocratic Paradigm

    A good example of this deeper Christian message is Laudato Si’s warning about the “technocratic paradigm”. Pope Francis writes:

     There is a tendency to believe that every increase in power means “an increase of ‘progress’ itself”, an advance in “security, usefulness, welfare and vigour; . . . as if reality, goodness and truth automatically flow from technological and economic power as such. The fact is that “contemporary man has not been trained to use power well”, because our immense technological development has not been accompanied by a development in human responsibility, values and conscience.

     It can be said that many problems of today’s world stem from the tendency, at times unconscious, to make the method and aims of science and technology an epistemological paradigm which shapes the lives of individuals and the workings of society. The effects of imposing this model on reality as a whole, human and social, are seen in the deterioration of the environment, but this is just one sign of a reductionism which affects every aspect of human and social life. We have to accept that technological products are not neutral, for they create a framework which ends up conditioning lifestyles and shaping social possibilities along the lines dictated by the interests of certain powerful groups. Decisions which may seem purely instrumental are in reality decisions about the kind of society we want to build.

    The idea of promoting a different cultural paradigm and employing technology as a mere instrument is nowadays inconceivable. The technological paradigm has become so dominant that it would be difficult to do without its resources and even more difficult to utilize them without being dominated by their internal logic. It has become countercultural to choose a lifestyle whose goals are even partly independent of technology, of its costs and its power to globalize and make us all the same. Technology tends to absorb everything into its ironclad logic, and those who are surrounded with technology “know full well that it moves forward in the final analysis neither for profit nor for the well-being of the human race”, that “in the most radical sense of the term power is its motive – a lordship over all”. As a result, “man seizes hold of the naked elements of both nature and human nature”. Our capacity to make decisions, a more genuine freedom and the space for each one’s alternative creativity are diminished.

    The technocratic paradigm also tends to dominate economic and political life. The economy accepts every advance in technology with a view to profit, without concern for its potentially negative impact on human beings. Finance overwhelms the real economy. The lessons of the global financial crisis have not been assimilated, and we are learning all too slowly the lessons of environmental deterioration. Some circles maintain that current economics and technology will solve all environmental problems, and argue, in popular and non-technical terms, that the problems of global hunger and poverty will be resolved simply by market growth. . . . Yet by itself the market cannot guarantee integral human development and social inclusion. . . . We fail to see the deepest roots of our present failures, which have to do with the direction, goals, meaning and social implications of technological and economic growth.

    Technology, as Pope Francis warns, is not neutral. Every technology has its own inner logic, and imposes a certain shape on society. For instance, the automobile was developed to enable large distances to be covered quickly. It was a luxury item; most people were able to do without it in their daily lives. Now, it has reshaped our cities and our society to such an extent that in most parts of the USA it is a necessity. At the same time, society as a whole is not moving faster; we’re just moving in a different (and more environmentally destructive) way. In a sense, technologies such as the automobile share many of the characteristics of a protection racket. They produce a problem and then claim to solve it, making themselves necessary in the process.

    Need for Community

    The rejection of the technocratic paradigm is something individuals must pursue as part of an ecological conversion. We need to regain a perspective in which technology is merely a tool, and in consequence, is not allowed to reshape life in a destructive way. Living out this renewed perspective, however, is not possible without a community. In fact, once an individual has experienced an ecological conversion, they will probably find that the concrete change of life they feel called to requires a supportive community.

    Closing Advice

    For those who are suspicious of Laudato Si, just try reading the first three chapters. Pray and reflect on what Pope Francis is really saying. He’s not asking for some global change from on high, but for us to change our hearts. Converted hearts inevitably change the world. If we want people to “eat well and keep warm” to paraphrase St. James, then we have to be willing to take concrete steps toward that goal. These steps must involve protecting our common home.

  • Camel and needle
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    Is it Really Necessary to be Poor?

    The story of the rich young man in Matthew 19 clearly illustrates the dangerous nature of wealth. When the topic comes up, however, many Christians quickly point out that Christ only said “if you would be perfect”, and that it would be “hard” but not “impossible” for the rich to enter heaven. After all, while a camel going through a needle may seem impossible, Christ did say that nothing is impossible with God! Going even further, some have claimed that the eye of the needle was merely the name of a narrow gate or pass, through which a camel could pass, if perhaps with difficulty.

    Before addressing this argument, it is important to clarify that Gospel poverty does not entail destitution, the lack of basic necessities. Father Dubay’s book Happy Are You Poor explains this very well. Our summary of his book can be read here.

    Necessary for What? 

    God’s mercy being infinite, it is of course true that voluntary poverty is not “necessary for salvation”. The only thing necessary for salvation is to humbly ask for the mercy of God. Someone can live a totally depraved life and be saved by asking for mercy at the last moment. It should be fairly obvious, however, that the message of the Gospel is not “do whatever you want and then ask for mercy at the last moment”. The real question for the Christian should be: is voluntary poverty an integral part of the Christian life?

    Further, there is an interesting aspect to the idea of camels squeezing through a narrow gate. There is much debate as to whether the initial word in the Gospel was “camel” or “cable”, whether an “eye of the needle” gate existed, and so forth. Still, at least some commentators think the saying means that a camel could get through, but only if it was unloaded of all its baggage. After all, the rich are not a distinct species; they are human beings like the rest of us, with the addition of a lot of “stuff”. Christ may have been making a humorous comparison between a heavily burdened camel stuck in a narrow gate, and the wealthy who trudge through life spiritually weighed down by their possessions. The birds and wildflowers are carefree, while the rich need many barns to store their goods. 

    Detachment

    The inherently burdening nature of wealth, however, is denied by some Christians. According to them, when the Gospel counsels “poverty” what is really meant is mere detachment. They insist that so long as one isn’t inordinately attached to possessions, wealth is harmless or even beneficial. 

    For one thing, this idea ignores the vital connection between physical reality and spiritual attitudes. As Father Dubay puts it, for wounded human beings “possessing imperceptibly slips into being possessed.” This is a Gnostic age that downplays material reality, an age which is “spiritual but not religious”. Christianity, however, is firmly rooted in the material, and takes physical actions very seriously. It is ironic that many who argue for mere inward detachment are simultaneously engaged in arguing for the importance of concrete, material acts of religion. 

    Our age is also an extremely individualist one. It is very telling that when the topic of poverty is discussed, the focus tends to be on the effects wealth may or may not have on one’s individual spirituality. The Gospel does not overlook the personal aspect, but puts even more stress on the social aspect of wealth. Whatever loopholes there may be in the story of the rich young man, there are no such loopholes in the picture presented by Matthew 25, James 2:14-17, and 1 John 3. If we don’t love and serve our brothers and sisters, then we don’t love God. This love can’t remain a spiritual thing of “thoughts and prayers”, but demands concrete action. 

    Christian love is absolutely incompatible with purchasing luxuries for ourselves while our brothers and sisters are starving. Such selfish actions also expose so-called “detachment” that is devoid of practical results as a pious sham. Someone who was truly detached would be only too willing to give surplus wealth away to feed the hungry. 

    The Rosary

    To me, it seems that there is a fairly watertight case for the essential role of voluntary poverty, at least when the social dimension is taken into account. In one sense, however, the very fact that we’re discussing whether it is an essential practice highlights a problem. Here is an aspect of Christian spirituality that is extensively discussed in Sacred Scripture and that has been recommended in glowing terms by numerous saints. Given all this, why are we debating about whether it is essential? It seems rather like a debate about whether a good night’s sleep is important to academic or athletic performance the next day. Sure, you could possibly succeed without it; but why be so quick to dismiss something of such obvious value?

    The folly of this dismissal can be seen by comparing Catholic attitudes toward voluntary poverty with Catholic attitudes toward the Rosary. The Rosary is certainly an excellent prayer, but it isn’t mentioned in scripture, and obviously isn’t necessary for living a good Christian life, let alone for salvation. Yet there are Rosary confraternities, books of rosary meditations, programs and articles on how to say the rosary, and organizations dedicated to promoting it. Many Catholics pray the rosary every day. All well and good. The contrast with voluntary poverty, however, is striking. Shouldn’t we put at least as much effort into practicing, promoting, and reflecting on voluntary poverty as we put into practicing, promoting, and reflecting on the Rosary and other non-biblical religious practices? Perhaps if Catholics reclaimed this traditional yet neglected element of the Faith, our Church would be transformed.